Manchester City stung by Liverpool as Pep Guardiola plans a response
Manchester City's historic failures at Liverpool were maintained and significantly augmented by a slapdash performance in Wednesday's 3-0 first leg defeat in the Champions League quarterfinals, lacking practically all of the characteristics that have marked them down as something special this season.
City were undone, step by painful step. It was ruthless against toothless, and there is only one winner in that kind of match-up.
As with the 4-3 defeat at Anfield in January, City's defence was quickly harried out of its stride, the midfield -- apparently but not visibly bolstered by the presence of Ilkay Gundogan -- proved to be anything but tight. In fact, with Gundogan heading wide and City persisting with the rather obvious plan of targeting Leroy Sane as a major plus against a presumably wobbly Trent Alexander-Arnold, the one-dimensional ploy was clearly not working as early as the half-hour stage.
Sane's touch was slightly out, an opportunity to pass to Kevin De Bryune in an early riposte missed (he shot meekly wide instead) and, in addition to that, his young marker played excellently, sticking to his task manfully as the winger tried his utmost to gain the upper hand.
Apart from the initial admission of fear in including Gundogan to an already well populated midfield and the very obvious ploy of targeting Alexander-Arnold, what else went wrong? Pep Guardiola has proved a master at getting his players to believe in the power of possession, but none of this teaches them passion. Liverpool allowed City an early dominance over the ball, but soon began to reveal drive which City could not match.
All the prematch chatter of flares and smoke bombs had clouded the real threat: out on the Anfield turf. A supposedly weaker midfield of James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain laid waste to City's Rolls Royce passers, De Bruyne and David Silva. Hurried out of possession, closed down quickly, chased and harried. Now where have we seen that before? It was a replica of the defeat on the same ground in the league match, City's only defeat in this stroll of a title-winning season.
With Sane wasteful, the midfield stars corked and Gabriel Jesus contributing his worst performance in a City shirt in place of Sergio Aguero up front, the writing was on the wall. The Champions League has produced four extremely one-sided games in this year's quarterfinal first legs. All City can pray for is their tie provides the turnaround that sometimes occurs in these prestige games. This is, after all, a club that has long proved capable of Jekyll and Hyde performances, weird against-the-odds results and eye opening surprises.
Guardiola must now train his thoughts on something that he had threatened to let lie: the small matter of the Manchester derby at the weekend. Suddenly a game that was about to be allowed to drift casually into view while everyone licked their lips over Europe can no longer be taken so lightly.
The Catalan needs a reaction from his players. There should be no day off for the big stars in anticipation of a tough second leg against Liverpool next week. They have had their day off already, at Anfield. Now the need for a positive result to conclude the title saga and boost suddenly flagging spirits is greater than any idea of saving legs for Liverpool.
A win at the weekend will put the league to bed. That in itself will be a fine feat in the first days of April. Such an early conclusion to the title race may not add much lustre to the last weeks of the league season, but it would be a fitting tribute to a team that has purred and strolled its way to the summit this season.
It would also clear the minds for the task in hand: turning around a three-goal deficit in the Champions League. Going into the Liverpool second leg with another failure against United in the players' minds would surely further dissuade City's players from the positive thinking needed for such an occasion. There is a precedent for what City must achieve for redemption in that second leg. Only last season Barcelona came back from a 4-0 first leg defeat against Paris Saint-Germain to knock the French side out 6-5 on aggregate.
You have to travel back much further to find another example of a three-goal first leg win being overturned, however, that of Deportivo la Coruna, who shocked the mighty Milan in 2003-04.
City's players, nursing scorched self-confidence, will do well to remember, then, that it is still possible, if highly unlikely. That 5-0 league win in September now becomes the benchmark for what is required.
That such a score against Liverpool had not been reached since 1928 may just be better left unsaid in the corridors of the Etihad this week.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.